Cities are fighting doughnut syndrome: Oxford Street splutters in tide of tat

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The Independent Online
'I DON'T normally come shopping here,' said the woman in the smart red coat, pausing outside one of Oxford Street's tacky souvenir shops, opposite Selfridges' elegant frontage. 'I'm only here because my mother's visiting from Birmingham. I prefer my local shops in Richmond.

'There's nothing special here; it's dirty, crowded and a miserable place to come. Even my mother was saying Birmingham town centre is better.'

On a drizzly January day, Oxford Street, London's premier shopping high street, looks grey and grim, despite the new art deco-style lampposts and resurfaced stretches of pavement at its more upmarket western end - part of a pounds 10m refurbishment initiative led by Westminster council 'in response to the perceived poor quality of the streetscape'.

Outside a Marks & Spencer hidden by scaffolding, a disconsolate man was waiting, weighed down with carrier bags. 'What really pisses me off,' he explained, 'is that I can't bring the car. I've got to lug all this stuff home on the train. My wife bullies me into coming in for the sales. Why we can't go to Marks & Spencer down the road in Wood Green I don't know.'

A study by DTZ Research for the Property Managers' Association has shown that Oxford Street has the highest turnover of any shopping centre in Britain - but that high rent, rates, staff and security costs push it to the bottom of the profitability league. Princes Street in Edinburgh finds itself in a similar situation.

Tim Daniels, head of the Oxford Street Association and managing director of Selfridges, is unruffled. 'We have been very, very busy - we are very, very buoyant. If these reports about Oxford Street doing badly were true, why would all these firms spend so much money on being here?'

He believes that Oxford Street can rise to the challenge of the glitzy new US-style retail centres that are supposed to spell doom to traditional high- street shopping. And DZT's research shows that in fact six out of the top 10 most profitable shopping locations in Britain are high streets rather than out- of-town malls.

Mark Williams of DZT does not believe that malls pose a threat to high-street shopping - though smaller, secondary shopping areas may suffer. 'Gateshead shopping centre, which was tiny, got wiped out by the MetroCentre - but Newcastle is doing very well.'

US planners have identified the 'doughnut syndrome', where a ring of out-of-town shopping malls and commercial centres leads to inner-city decay. Bernard Tennant, director of retail at the British Chamber of Commerce, warns that some British towns are following the same path. 'High streets are dying on their feet - look at Shoreham-by-Sea, Bolton, Corsham in Wiltshire - or Dudley, a classic example, bypassed by people driving out to the Merry Hill centre.'

However, according to Stephen Schwartz, of the Dudley Retail Business Watch traders association, even stricken Dudley is perking up somewhat. 'Two years ago things were much worse - the worst time was when Marks & Spencer moved out.

' But now units have moved into the empty shells left by Littlewoods, Marks & Spencer, Currys. The high street is still surviving.'

An Association of Town Centre Managers was set up in response to the threat from mega-shopping centres, and now has more than 200 members. Its chairman, Michael Stansbury, who helped Ilford fight back after the Lakeside Centre opened within competitive distance in Thurrock, is now one of 60 full-time town- centre managers; six years ago he was the only one.

He believes that the high street can beat off the threat of the shopping mall - though hard work and investment are needed.

He said: 'Places like Basildon, Romford, Thurrock, even Southend, have had a significant leakage of trade. What we're trying to do is bring town centres up to the level of shopping malls - clean, tidy, well- looked after, with adequate parking and facilities.

'When the MetroCentre opened, Newcastle thought it would be devastated - in fact, they put a lot of work into improving the centre of Newcastle and they are now trading more successfully than before. Competition means one's got to strive for better standards - and the shopper wins.'

He does not think the British high street need worry about death-by-doughnut syndrome, because British town centres are more than just retail areas. 'They are centres of culture, meeting places, they have a social significance. We will not only be keeping the jam in our doughnut, we will be making it better - strawberry rather than apricot flavoured.'

Oxford Street may have difficulties living up to this proposed nation of classy high streets. Especially down the Tottenham Court Road end, discount shops with shrieking red 'Sale' signs in the windows offer cut-price, low-quality goods - ugly leather jackets for pounds 30, limp shirts for pounds 15 - or suspicious bargains - a camera for pounds 1, a Game Boy for pounds 3 - over a background of blaring music.

Many shoppers feel that Oxford Street is getting worse, not improving.

'Selfridges is good, they still call you 'madam', but the rest is starting to disappear under a tide of tat,' snapped one elderly shopper.

Della, who runs a flower stall near the top end of the street, said wistfully: 'It's lost its character - all those silly shops with all the bargains.'

(Photograph omitted)